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Criminology and Criminal Justice Research: Methods

Qualitative Research Methods

Unlike quantitative research methods, qualitative approaches are designed to capture life as participants experience it, rather than in categories predetermined by the researcher. These methods typically involve exploratory research questions, inductive reasoning, an orientation to social context and human subjectivity, and the meanings attached by participants to events and to their lives (Schutt). There are a number of distinctive research designs under this paradigm: (1) participant observation, (2) intensive interviewing, (3) focus groups, and (4) case studies and life histories. Each of these will be discussed in turn.

Participant observation. At its most basic level, participant observation involves a variety of strategies in data gathering in which the researcher observes a group by participating, to varying degrees, in the activities of the group (Hagan). Gold discusses four different positions on a continuum of roles that field researchers may play in this regard: (1) complete participant, (2) participant-as-observer, (3) observer-as-participant, and (4) complete observer. Complete participation takes place when the researcher joins in and actually begins to manipulate the direction of group activity. In the participant-as-observer strategy, the researcher usually makes himself known and tries to objectively observe the activities of the group. The observer-as-participant strategy is very much like a one-visit interview, where the interviewees are also short-term participant observers. Typically, these interviews are conducted with individuals who are known to participate in a designated activity. For example, Jacobs interviewed known active drug dealers in order to gain a better understanding of how the crack business actually operates on the streets. Finally, the complete observer strategy relies on sole observation absent participation from the researcher.

Although several issues must be confronted when engaging in this sort of research, two are of vital importance: (1) objectivity, and (2) "going native." The former deals with the researcher's ability to avoid not only overidentification with the study group, but also aversion to it (Hagan). The latter deals with a situation in which the researcher identifies with and becomes a member of the study group, and in the process abandons his or her role as an objective researcher (Hagan). Even with these cautions, a number of important participant observation studies have been undertaken in criminology and criminal justice including Polsky's study of pool hustlers and con artists, as well as Marquart's study of prison life.

Intensive interviewing. Intensive interviewing consists of open-ended, relatively unstructured questioning in which the interviewer seeks in-depth information on the interviewee's feelings, experiences, or perceptions (Schutt, 1999). Unlike the participant observation strategy, intensive interviewing does not require systematic observation of respondents in their natural setting. Typically, interviewing sample members, and identification and interviewing of more sample members, continues until the saturation point is reached, the point when new interviews seems to yield little additional information (Schutt).

A prominent example of the intensive interviewing technique can be found in a series of studies with active residential burglars (Wright and Decker, 1994) and robbers (Wright and Decker, 1997) in St. Louis. These authors have conducted in-depth interviews with active criminals in their natural environment. Some of these interviews have yielded important theoretical insights that perhaps may not have been garnered via traditional survey methods. Other prominent examples may be found in Fagan and Wilkinson's study of gun-related violence in New York and Jacobs's study of crack addicts in St. Louis.

Focus groups. Focus groups are groups of unrelated individuals that are formed by a researcher and then led in group discussions of a topic (Schutt). Typically, the researcher asks specific questions and guides the discussion to ensure that group members address these questions, but the resulting information is qualitative and relatively unstructured (Schutt).

Although generalizations from focus groups to target populations cannot be precise (Maxfield and Babbie), research suggests that focus group information, combined with survey information, can be quite consistent under certain conditions (Ward et al.). One such criminal justice example is provided by Schneider and her colleagues. These authors examined the implementation process and the role of risk/need assessment instruments for decisions about the proper level of supervision among parolees and probationers. Their use of focus group was able to provide a context for a more complete understanding of the survey results from the probation officers interviewed.

Case studies and life histories. In general, case studies and life histories are in-depth, qualitative studies of one or a few illustrative cases (Hagan). Several criminological examples using this approach exist, and a few in particular have produced some of the most important, baseline information in the discipline today. The classic example is Sutherland's The Professional Thief (1937). In this case study, Sutherland's informant, Chic Conwell, described the world of the professional thief. Other examples include Shaw's The Jack-Roller (1930), which tells the autobiographical story of a delinquent's own experiences, influences, attitudes, and values. Finally, Horatio Alger's tale of street life in New York tells the story of Young Dick, a street boy who is involved in a delinquent life but who is also honest and hardworking. Life-history methods generally involve the analysis of diaries, letters, biographies, and autobiographies to obtain a detailed view of either a unique or representative individual (Hagan). A classic example of the life-history method is Teresa and Renner's My Life in the Mafia (1973).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCriminology and Criminal Justice Research: Methods - Quantitative Research Methods, Threats To Validity, Qualitative Research Methods, Future Of Research Methods In Criminology And Criminal Justice